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EPA Nominee's Balancing Act Has Its Critics

Utah Gov. Leavitt has had success achieving consensus on land-use issues, but harbors a pro-development bias, environmentalists say.

August 17, 2003|Elizabeth Shogren | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — When President Bush nominated Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency, he praised Leavitt's skills as a consensus builder.

He particularly credited Leavitt for corralling 13 governors and 13 Indian tribal leaders, as well as environmental activists and industry leaders, behind one plan to clear the haze obscuring scenic views across the West. On this issue, environmentalists and utility executives alike give Leavitt high marks.

The secret to his success, Leavitt says, is his philosophy of "enlibra," a word he coined from Latin to mean "move toward balance."

But Leavitt, 52, has not always achieved the balance that produced the regional clean-air agreement. Environmental groups that have struggled to block oil drilling in Utah's spectacular red-rock canyon land, to prevent a massive highway through prime wetlands and to clean up vast quantities of toxic wastes tell a different story.

Leavitt, they say, approached these controversies with a clear bias toward development and resource extraction. And he often sought resolutions in closed-door meetings.

As head of the EPA, Leavitt would have broad authority to establish rules regulating what businesses must do to protect the environment. He would also set the tone for how aggressively the government would crack down on companies that violate pollution laws.

People who have dealt with the governor wonder which Leavitt will take over the EPA: the one who advocates development, or the one who seeks broad-based compromises to solve environmental problems.

Industry representatives, environmentalists and longtime advisors to the governor suggest that in the new job, as in the old, some of each is likely to be present.

A review of cases he's been involved in showed that when a broad group of interests agreed on an environmental goal, Leavitt could be counted on to push a consensus-driven means of achieving it. But when Republican interests clearly lay on one side of a debate, he was more likely to side with industry or other conservative constituencies.

One goal shared by a broad spectrum of interests was that of cleaning the haze that had intruded on such national parks as Arizona's Grand Canyon and Utah's Arches, Zion, Bryce and Canyonlands.

For most of his nearly 11 years as governor, Leavitt managed to keep a diverse group of state and tribal officials, representatives from big, polluting companies and environmental activists focused on developing a plan to address the haze problem.

On June 10, 1996, Leavitt stood at the south rim of the Grand Canyon with this unlikely assemblage and announced their hard-won agreement.

But a year later the coalition was on the verge of falling apart. The EPA had developed general clean-air standards, and many of the interested Western parties felt the EPA approach failed to follow their strategy of specific requirements such as developing clean energy sources.

Leavitt did not give up. He went to Washington to testify against the EPA plan. Back in the West, he directed the parties to hash out a new proposal that would alter the EPA's plan to match their vision.

Vickie Patton was engaged in the process from the start, as a lawyer first for the EPA and then for the national group Environmental Defense, participating in countless acrimonious conference calls and screaming sessions in hotel meeting rooms.

"It can be excruciatingly difficult to find common ground with people who hold very different views," Patton said. "But if you can do it, in the end you'll have public policy that has more durable political support."

The EPA accepted the group's changes. Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Oregon and Wyoming have already signed up for the program, and the other eight states must decide this year whether to join. The plan requires step-by-step reductions of regional emissions of sulfur dioxide at a time of exploding population growth.

Power plants, the region's biggest polluters, would be required to cut emissions by 40% by 2018, with milestones along the way. If the milestones were not met, a mandatory program would kick in. Large polluters would be given emission allotments. Companies that cleaned up faster than required could sell their allotments to dirtier plants that could not meet their targets.

The more vociferous environmentalists, who believe the results were not ambitious enough, at least give Leavitt some credit for the effort.

"He provided good leadership," said Rick Moore, who took his environmental group, Grand Canyon Trust, out of the process early on. "It was right up Gov. Leavitt's alley," because the governor was able to to embrace a broad range of interests and drive them toward consensus. "The process was consensus-driven, with lots of committees and wide-ranging stakeholders," he said.

The trouble with broad consensus, Moore said, is that it can often be achieved only by significantly watered-down results. He complained that the air pollution control effort was too little and too slow.

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